Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Briefing 120 / Asia

Nepal’s Fitful Peace Process

The parties to Nepal’s fitful peace process have less than eight weeks to agree on integration of Maoist combatants and federalism before the term of the Constituent Assembly elected to draft a new constitution expires.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

I. Overview

Nepal is entering a new phase in its fitful peace process, in which its so-called “logical conclusion” is in sight: the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants and the introduction of a new constitution. The Maoists, the largest party, are back in government in a coalition led by the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), UML party. Negotiations, although fraught, are on with the second-largest party, the Nepali Congress (NC), to join. Agreement is being reached on constitutional issues and discussions continue on integration. None of the actors are ramping up for serious confrontation and few want to be seen as responsible for the collapse of the constitution-writing process underway in the Constituent Assembly (CA). But success depends on parties in opposition keeping tactical threats to dissolve the CA to a minimum, the government keeping them engaged, and the parties in government stabilising their own precariously divided houses. It will also require the Maoists to take major steps to dismantle their army.

The fundamentally political nature of the transitional arms and armies arrangements became clear when the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) departed in January 2011, as did the resilience of the peace process and the Maoists’ continued buy-in. That is encouraging, as is the fresh momentum. But major challenges remain. The CA may need a short extension when its term expires on 28 May 2011 if the parties cannot quickly agree on integration or federalism. But the Madhesi parties and sections of the NC and UML are willing to argue against extension, largely as a bargaining posture, and to slow down negotiations to suggest that the CA is ineffective. All parties in government are in the throes of factional struggles; internal disagreements and threatened splits complicate the outlook. In their rush to get to the finish line, all parties risk doing the bare minimum to “complete” the process. After 21 months of fighting over access to power, including sixteen unsuccessful votes to select a prime minister, and limited progress in the year before that, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has become a ragged document.

There has been no empirical survey on the state of landholdings and no land reform measures implemented yet. The Disappearance and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have not yet been formed. Plans for what the CPA calls the “democratisation” of the Nepal Army are so far largely self-directed and more concerned with beautifying the bureaucracy surrounding the army, rather than making the institution more accountable and smaller. These long-term projects would be easy to push on to the back burner. But to do so would undermine implementation of the new constitution and the deep political reform envisaged in the CPA, and consolidation of lasting peace. State restructuring, though broadly agreed to be essential or unavoidable, plays out in public as a binary debate on the Maoists’ contested definition of federalism, rather than on what it is Nepalis want out of this change and how best to deliver that.

The immediate tasks, integration and getting the new constitution right, are critical to addressing these issues in the long term. This government has close to the two-thirds majority needed to pass the constitution or extend the CA. But the resistance of some in the NC and the Madhesi parties, encouraged by India, could make for another messy, last-minute action, in which substantive issues are compromised to defend power-sharing arrangements. Further, a constitution, or a plan for its deferral, that any of the larger parties does not sign off on would be contested from the start. Visible progress is needed to reassure the fractured polity and public that the task of transforming the state has not been abandoned and to counter the threat of localised violence in the lead up to the 28 May deadline. Ideally, extension of the CA would be short and accompanied by a non-negotiable timeline for resolution of the federalism question, and public disclosure of even a partial draft.

The NC and Madhesi parties from the country’s southern Tarai region should join the government to make decisions truly consensual and share the political gains of success. Until then, the ruling UML-Maoist coalition needs urgently to engage with these parties. The Maoists must finally make a good faith gesture on dismantling its People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The NC must go beyond its rhetorical dichotomy of democracy versus Maoist state capture and contribute constructively to negotiations.

The Maoists are undergoing a transformation, dramatically visible in divisive public spats between the leaders, as the party simultaneously acts as a revolutionary movement, a political party aggressively pushing the limits of democratic practice, and an expanding enterprise of financial interests and patronage. With the Maoists announcing, while in government, the creation of a new “volunteer” outfit, continuing extortion by the party’s various wings, monopoly over decision-making and intimidation in some districts, and ideological reiteration of “revolt”, they are a difficult partner to trust. This is their moment to acknowledge that capturing state power through armed force is no longer on their agenda, and to address the deep discontent within the leadership.

For the NC and UML, which have done little to rebuild their political organisations and regain political space after the 2008 CA elections, contributing positively to immediate and medium-term peace process goals could revitalise their bases. Their greatest challenges come from divisions within, rigidity towards the new political order, and the social changes at the grassroots. Their weak organisations and internal disputes, reservations about the extent of reform proposed by the peace process and poorly articulated party policies may further marginalise them.

Most Madhesi parties, whose participation in national politics in the last two years has been largely limited to making up the numbers for a variety of alliances, still look to New Delhi for assistance. Their political agenda is devalued by their opportunistic political alliances, but they retain the ability, with some assistance, to mobilise in order to give the government a hard time and push for a role in decision-making so their concerns are addressed.

With the departure of UNMIN, New Delhi again finds itself in a leadership role in international engagement with Nepal. The new coalition demonstrates the limits of its policy of isolating the Maoists and India must now re-assess whether it can continue to hold this position and whether dissolution of the CA, its preferred option, will have controllable consequences. Re-engagement with the Maoists will require the various sections of the Indian establishment to manoeuvre themselves out of the corner they have painted themselves into; having supported and encouraged Nepali actors in taking extreme anti-Maoist stances, they will have to backtrack, potentially leaving allies in Kathmandu to pay the political price. The rest of the international community needs to offer consultative, unstinting and transparent support to implementing long-term peace process commitments.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 7 April 2011

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.


Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.